By Rich Fisher
Mar. 3: When they seeded the 170-pound weight class in the NJSIAA Region 6 wrestling tournament, they didn’t think Ryan Bennett would win one match, let alone a championship.
At first that didn’t bother him. But when he found out why he was the 8th seed despite a 30-2 record that was the best at 170 pounds in his region, a bit of bother set in.
“To be completely honest I’ve never really cared about seedings,” the Hamilton West senior said. “When I started I was told right from the beginning that seeding doesn’t mean anything. But after seeing my bracket and being told that the only reason I didn’t get the number one seed was because I didn’t qualify for regions last year, that really did fire me up. I saw it as disrespect. I had a point to prove.”
He wasted little time proving it. defeating top seeded Brenden Newberry of Wall, 9-4 in the quarterfinals to make a statement. He then took down 4th-seeded James Ball of Burlington City, 12-4, and dropped 10th-seeded Paskal Miga of Allentown, 11-3, in the finals.
That punches Bennett’s ticket for his first trip to the state tournament in Atlantic City, which gets underway Thursday.
“All I wanted to do was make it to the show (the states) and although I obviously wanted that region title, I would’ve been happy either way,” he said.
But after having a day to reflect upon things, the U.S. Air Force recruit started to realize just how special his season has become.
“Now that the tournament is all over, it is really surreal thinking about it,” Bennett said. “I went from being a nobody in this sport to being a county, district and region champ. Having a bunch of different papers have stories about me, many different reporters wanting to talk to me, it’s all just amazing. It feels good to have all my hard work the past four years finally pay off to the fullest.”
It was pretty amazing to watch Bennett go after his title by knocking off two higher seeds before, incredibly, getting a lower seed in the finals.
Going into the quarterfinals, he had done his homework on Newberry.
“I knew he was going to be strong in his lower body, and I also knew he was strong in the tie-up,” Bennett said. “I watched one video on him and went to work in the room and came in prepared. I controlled the whole match with literally every single thing I worked on all week leading up to Friday. The outcome was exactly how me and my coaches pictured it.”
He came back to Jackson Liberty High School on Saturday morning to face Ball, and figured he was suddenly on everyone’s radar.
“Once I got through Newberry, I felt I made a scene and put everyone on notice,” he said. “After the match, I went home, went to bed, and visualized what I was going to do on Saturday. I executed everything I visualized.”
After dispatching Ball by a major decision, the Hornet did a double take when he saw Miga waiting for him in the finals.
“That kind of threw me for a loop at first,” he said. “I said to myself ‘If I can win as the eighth seed, why couldn’t he win as the tenth?’”
Bennett had never wrestled the Redbird before, either in this year’s dual meet or the Mercer County Tournament. He pretty much had one match to scout from.
“I didn’t really know much about him,” Bennett said. “I had the chance to watch his semifinals match on Saturday and learned a lot about his wrestling and it helped with my mental preparation for the finals. The match went exactly as planned. Just as the other matches, I controlled the whole match.”
Now comes the zenith for New Jersey wrestlers. It’s an environment Bennett has never wrestled in before, but he is heading to the AC boardwalk with an attitude he has never had before.
“Going into states my confidence is through the roof, I’ve finally gotten to the show,” he said. “If I place or don’t place I’ll be happy. But getting on the podium is definitely something that will make this year even better than it already is.”
And at the moment, it’s pretty darn great.